Embattled Ex-Mayor Rick Filippi Goes on Record to Discuss Facing Jail Time, His Return to Politics, and the Future of Erie
By: Rebecca Styn
When Attorney Rick Filippi took office in 2002, he became Erie's 50th mayor; and he was only 36 years old. Even before he started his first term, he was known to be progressive, aggressive, and controversial. This is ultimately what drove his agenda forward. He challenged the status quo. He wanted Erie to become greater than it was.
But he was also young. And the combination of all of those traits is probably also what became the demise of his regime, as he served only one term, losing to Erie's current mayor, Democrat Joe Sinnott in the primary elections in 2005.
Filippi admittedly made mistakes along the way. But, he made a significant one, one that changed the course of both his political career and his life in Erie.
In January 2004, local media started questioning Filippi's involvement in real estate dealings. It was this media probe that prompted the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office to investigate further. As a result, on Dec. 8, 2004, Filippi was formally charged with using inside knowledge to invest in real estate near the proposed site of a horse racing and casino complex. Then-interim PA State Attorney General Jerry Pappert said Filippi, who was 38 at the time, had invested money in a company formed to buy properties near a former paper plant at the same time he was leading confidential negotiations with developers seeking to turn the site into an $80 million gambling complex.
The charges included criminal conspiracy, conflict of interest, and accepting improper influence. Two of Filippi's business partners, Eric Purchase – Filippi's longtime friend and former campaign manager – and Rolf Patberg, faced similar charges. The trial was then moved to Washington County, about 135 miles south of Erie, because of pretrial publicity. Filippi and his partners were acquitted on all charges – a verdict so overwhelming that his defense attorney Leonard Ambrose actually fainted as the jury announced their decision.
And through all this he ran for a second term – and lost.
What many of us forget though is that in the short term, Filippi made a significant investment into reclaiming, re-energizing, and revitalizing Erie's neighborhoods. A Downtown Business Improvement District was launched in June 2004. He was a strong proponent of arts and culture, and he created CelebrateErie.
He led an aggressive recycling campaign that saw residential recycling increase by some 300-plus tons. He was also voted PA's Best Mayor in 2003 by PoliticsPA.com. Under his leadership, the city won the Erie Environmental Award for 2005, the Economic Development Multimedia Award, and the 2003 Most Livable City Award, the last two being national awards.
He did the job the way it was intended to be done – until he couldn't do it any longer. And then just like that, he was gone. But he didn't leave Erie. He stayed put, remaining part of the community, but secluded himself in what he calls a "self-imposed exile." To date, he runs a successful law practice, and he was even honored as Erie County 2010 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.
But eight years later, he's back, re-entering the political field in Erie by supporting and advising current campaigns, the majority of which won 2013's primary elections. And now that the dust has had years to settle, and Erie has pushed onward, it is time for him to tell his story from his perspective, so I sat down with him on two occasions to talk about his past and present – and Erie's future.
Rebecca Styn: You won the election for mayor after serving one term on City Council. What made you want to get involved in politics to begin with?
Rick Filippi: Believe it or not – and I've said this over the last 10-15 years – it was really a sense of responsibility to make some positive difference in Erie. That's really what drove me. I had a nice legal career going, and I know they've upped the [mayor's salary] now, but it certainly wasn't the pay in the mayor's office at the time.
I really believed that a mayor had the opportunity to change the way Erie thought about itself and how to do things and to impact in a positive way, the dissent that we've been experiencing for at least a generation. One statistic that I always cite when I'm talking about Erie County is that we've had no population growth since the 1970s. We are completely stagnant. That's one of the most important vital signs of the community. I was motivated by all of these things.
RS: You also had several opponents in that race.
RF: There were six candidates total. All Democrats. And then I had to take on Republican Jack Anderson in the general election. I'm pretty sure I trounced Anderson in the general, though the primary was close.
Although, I find it ironic given the slate at that time that nobody is running anymore. I'm a little surprised about the general apathy that exists in the city from the political standpoint. The fact that the incumbent would run unopposed is kind of a shock to me. I think it's just a sign that the mayor's office has lost a lot of prestige. That feeling has been preeminent over the county executive for years, but it's gotten to the point where the mayor's office is seen that way. And we don't seem to have a lot of other major leadership. Thirty years ago, everyone looked at Lou Tullio like an iconic figure politically for the area. Now, we've been sliced and diced.
For the first time in Erie's history, we don't have a representative in congress. My wife's from Butler – and I love Butler [Pa.] – but I don't consider Mike Kelly representing Erie County. It's sad because politics have done this to us. But it's also because of our failure to progress.
RS: Talk about your experiences your first few months in office?
RF: I had an aggressive agenda – there's no question about it. I felt like Erie at the time was teetering at the tipping point. At the time, I felt that some major changes were needed. And change doesn't come easy. You don't sit around and have coffee and talk about change.
So, I knew I was going to get a decent amount of pushback and controversy, but it certainly was a lot more than I anticipated. Even before day one I experienced it. I remember as part of the transition team, we issued letters to all the management employees at city hall and basically said, 'We want you to reapply for your job' – that was like a nuclear bomb going off [he laughs]. I had City Council members ranting and raving about it. But, at the end of the day we kept 90-some percent of the people. One of the things I wish I would have done was started fresh with my cabinet level officials – and I didn't. And that's my fault.
RS: So, tell me about some of those you did keep?
RF: I kept Chuck Herron as Finance Director and I elevated Doug Mitchell to the city's Public Works Director. But I should have brought more people from outside the government sector. We would have had some difficulty running it for a little while, but we would have adapted quickly – it's not rocket science. I should have brought more of my own team in rather than trying to go in and win over the team that was already there – I'm talking about top-level management. The middle-level management – we needed those people. But, I had that culture working against me. We really only had two years before all the controversy about me came out, and we did accomplish a lot of our agenda.
RS: Talk about your agenda.
RF: Most of it, I don't get any credit for it anymore. It was funny, at the time when we looked at the city's financial condition, certain parties, city council, and the media wanted to portray it as if the city was on the financial brink of destruction. And it never was – it was the worst misconception. We were never close to Act 47 [which empowers the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to declare certain municipalities as financially distressed]. It was mainly self-created.
We also made a strategic decision that we needed to reduce the city's workforce, and you know we did that, I believe, in the most sympathetic way – we didn't cut it with a hatchet. We created a number of innovative retirement programs – one was the D.R.O.P. [Deferred Retirement Option Program]. It was a great way to get veteran police and firefighters to retire and to get great benefits. It was later dropped by the city, but I was vindicated back in 2011, when the State Supreme Court said the city wrongly eliminated the D.R.O.P. without negotiating the change with the labor union for the city's firefighters. So, it was reinstated. Ultimately we reduced the cities workforce by 23 to 25 percent. Most of those cuts were done prior to 2006. It's not something I was happy about, but it was necessary.
RS: What was the community's response to all of this?
RF: I was in the paper virtually every day – some good and some bad – everything was controversial. You're always going to affect various constituencies that prefer things the way they are. One of the problems in Erie is we never went through what cities like Pittsburgh went through in the '80s with massive shutdown of the steel industry. Our losses have been gradual over time. Because of that, it's really never forced people to make hard decisions. Now with GE, that's like the final step. Is anything we're going to do now going to be in enough time?
RS: Let's talk about the controversy that started to ensue halfway through your term as mayor.
RF: Well, we get caught up in all the casino hoopla. Looking back now, I think it's one of the worst pieces of legislation the commonwealth has ever enacted – nothing more than a huge tax on some of the poorest in Pa., and it's a really an inefficient tax – the state only gets 50 percent of the money, the other 50 percent goes to people that don't even live here. I've seen very little economic development as a result of it, and the fact that the city doesn't get a dime out of the casino money is just unconscionable to me.
Anyhow, if you recall what was going on, was the International Paper site was up for consideration as a site for the casino. Whether that was ever realistic or not, I'm not really sure, but at some point during those discussions, instead of the casino people telling us what they're going to do for us with this great opportunity – instead, they wanted $50 million from us to underwrite their construction of the casino.
At that point, I fought that. Why should we be doing that? We started looking at other casino options and that's when everything hit the fan.
RS: In December 2004, PA Attorney General Tom Corbett charged you with conspiring to personally profit from the proposed racetrack at the former International Paper Co. property by using inside information gleaned through the Mayor's Office. Let's talk about that.
RF: Actually, it was then-interim PA State Attorney General Jerry Pappert's office that charged me. And, well, I pretty much got sliced and diced. I mean, I was 38 at the time – I was pretty naïve about the ways of the world. During that time I had a minor investment in [Aiko Acquisitions, LLC, a real estate development company developed for the purpose of acquiring, renovating and leasing for profit, blighted residential and commercial properties in the City, as well as Erie County] that was buying property in Erie – it was really before any of the casino hoopla started. But, I was a little ignorant. The mistake I made then – and I made a lot of them – is that I was trying to be aggressive. We should have come out publicly to talk about it. But we were scared, and nobody knew what to do.
And then there was an investigation, and I couldn't say anything – and one thing led to another – and took on a political connotation. This was an opportunity for the culture to eliminate me. Again, I contributed to it, and I'm not saying I didn't. I don't think we should have ever had to go through what we went through.
RS: Your Chief of Staff and good friend Jeff Bucci was asked to testify against you, yes?
RF: Actually, they gave him immunity to testify against me. And he testified we weren't doing anything wrong. He testified to that and Jim Walzcak testified to the same thing. These were all state's witnesses, and they were all supposed to testify how somehow I was beating the system. Jeff Bucci and I have since buried the hatchet. Now [Greg] Rubino, well, you've got to know what you're dealing with. I mean, he's done some things – all on public record and all in federal court systems. But this is a guy that somehow gains credibility and still has it for some reason. But I came out of this with integrity, dignity, and honor. [Rubino was involved in the case because his company, Tecnica Development Corp., handled local real-estate deals for MTR and its subsidiary, Presque Isle Downs Inc. At the time of the trial, prosecutors claimed Filippi and his friends were engaged in the illegal land deals, and Rubino was in discussions with Filippi about locating the horse racing track on the International Paper site.]
RS: Do you think you were targeted by the Attorney General's office because of being a Democrat?
RF: Were they sitting in a back room saying, "Oh we're going to get this democrat." Probably not. But the attorney general is a political position and always has been. Corbett hadn't taken the position at the time of the charges, and if Jim Eisenhower (the democrat running) had won that election – and he was predicted to win up until the night of the election – the indictment probably never would have occurred, because he's got nothing to gain unless the Feds were to pick it up, but the Feds never wanted the case. They investigated it, but they handed it to the A.G. People probably don't realize this, but I was probably the highest elected official in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be acquitted after being charged. And I think that underscores the weakness of the case and possibly the political drive behind it.
RS: What was the toll on your family during the trial?
RF: My family is wonderful. My wife, who I've been married to 22 years this July, was behind me 100 percent. Fortunately, my children were still young, and I don't think it had too much impact. But we also had a great school – Saint Peter's [Cathedral] – and the school is very insulated and I think that helped protect them. But there were times when they were getting heckled and ridiculed. Like anything, the family gets together and supports each other.
What was really difficult is I lost my mother the first year I was in office, In December of 2002, after battling Pancreatic Cancer – she was only 59. Between being in office and the trial – I was never really able to get the time to grieve.
RS: Even after everything, you stayed in Erie. Some might not have. But you continue to remain part of the community and stay active and involved. Did you ever think otherwise?
RF: We contemplated leaving, but really what else do I have? I was raised here, my family is here and [he laughs] my law degree is only good here, in Pa. If I was going to leave, it would not have been to go anywhere else in Pennsylvania. The kids loved their school, and my family was my priority. Plus, I had to dig myself out of a large financial hole [due to the costs incurred through the trial] which took about five years.
In addition, I was going back into a practice – a business that relies on your integrity and honesty and character – and I didn't know what to expect. But I got the people who believed in who I was. I survived off of that and have done pretty well. I've also been able to give back in some ways as well – serving on a local nonprofit board and conducting a lot of pro-bono work. Even in 2010, I was pro-bono attorney of the year. And I still do that today.
RS: I recently heard you supported some candidates this past primary. Was this the first time you've gotten involved in any way since your time in office?
RF: This was the first time I really got involved – giving some contributions, meeting with people, and giving some strategy. I wanted to see some changes in the county. Everyone I supported – Kathy Dahlkemper, Jay Breneman, Teresa Stankiewicz – won. The only candidate that didn't was Joe Walsh. I mean, I like Pat Cappabianca, but his time is over.
RS: How about some of the projects that Erie is currently tackling?
RF: Well, there's Destination Erie. I mean, I applaud those efforts, but it's really redundant. Much of the efforts are what our administration was putting forth. I am also still a huge proponent of the community college. I mean, GE was willing to pony up $250k for it because they knew there was a need. It was No. 2 or 3 on the Bosworth Report's recommendation. [In 2001, economic development guru Brian Bosworth gave an unsparing and alarming assessment of the Erie region's prospects – he made a dozen recommendations for brightening Erie's economic picture, including establishing a community college, offering financial incentives to attract high-tech businesses and developing a downtown commercial and entertainment zone.]
And now the situation with GE. Do I think the main reason they're leaving is because we didn't build a community college? No. But it was definitely one of the reasons. You're looking at a community that wasn't willing to invest in itself. We'll build $5 million Park-and-Rides so suburbanites can park for free so they can take a free bus into a free concert, but we won't put a dime into our educating our displaced workers and youth.
Look at the neighborhood revitalization program. There was the LERTA (Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance) program I installed. It provided multi-year tax breaks for qualifying properties within a designated LERTA zone. It was one of the few things I was able to get City Council to support during my "honeymoon" period – was the 100 percent citywide 10-year LERTA program. There had been a time that a single family home hadn't been built in Erie – 5 to 10 years before I took office. And I after I left, they changed it – cut it down, cut out certain neighborhoods.
The reality is some of the higher tax paying neighborhoods in Erie – Frontier, Glenwood – they're not competing against each other, they're competing to keep residents from moving to Fairview. So, the LERTA was designed to give all neighborhoods a fighting edge against a continued flight out to the 'burbs – we wanted to change that.
And then there's the LORD Corporation. When this issue came up, the city wasn't even at the table. I can't even fathom that. The city had a lot to offer – economic development funds, resources, and officials – at one time, political clout. I would have been at the table. I did this when it was National Fuel Gas. Then County Executive Rick Schenker and I went to Buffalo with a proposal from Erie County to move them here. Now, I went there knowing I wanted National Fuel to be in the city even though it was not one of the choices. But I had to fight.
But with this Lord Corporation move, the mayor could have been at the table, and extracted something. Let's say we put some money in the deal. Ten years later when Lord starts paying taxes, the city should get some of the cut. When we extended water and sewer lines, the city should have gotten some of that revenue.
I used to do neighborhood sweeps – where I would have police go through "Little Italy," and we would pick up abandoned cars, clean the streets, etc. The idea was to have people in that neighborhood know that we cared. Leaders don't necessarily have all the answers, but sometimes it's just by being there and letting people know you're there and working on it.
RS: Any other projects?
RF: One of the last things I was working on in office – and this has gotten almost no print – was working to create a regional airport. I had always advocated one. The idea was the city was going to sell or lease the airport – and get the value of the original investment out. We estimated we would get $40 to 45 million and then we would transfer it to this new authority.
The city would get $40 million of unrestricted funds and there would be a bond issued to finance that and we were going to take that money and create a neighborhood redevelopment fund. Instead, they added appointments, so effectively the city lost political control that it once had. I don't understand how that has gone by without people even questioning it.
RS: So, I need to ask about CelebrateErie since it was your concept?
RF: CelebrateErie is really the emotional one for me. Back in 2001, my wife and I went to the last "We Love Erie Days," and it was nothing but a carnival with all out-of-town vendors. It wasn't a family environment anymore. There was nothing about the event that was about Erie except for the name.
So, we went home with a yellow legal pad and came up with 50 or more ideas. Broad ideas. I mean, I'm not a creative guy and I knew we needed to empower the creative people. The artists, the chefs, the musicians – get them on board let them go with it.
People forget we had the hall of inventions, where half a locomotive from GE was displayed, and then the hall of immigration, where we gave all the ethnic groups a chance to display. All the food vendors were from Erie – the "Taste of Erie" we had on Thursday night. Even the music – there I knew I wanted it to be different, stuff I knew nothing about. This was all designed to remind people who we are as a people – kind of along the same lines of what they're doing now with the Perry 200.
The year after I left office, I knew CelebrateErie was going down the tubes when the lead act was the Beach Boys. I mean, I like them, but that wasn't what it was supposed to be about. Washed-up acts milking a few bucks. It was supposed to be up-and-coming acts, acts that were still creative and still contributing. And it's not like we couldn't get the money. We got sponsorships, grants from Gov. [Ed] Rendell to support it.
And that's all evaporated. None of the extras are in there. We had a whole area for children. I haven't gone to it since we left, honest. Every day I wonder why they just don't change the name back to "We Love Erie Days." And there was nothing wrong with it at that time – it just ran its course. It was Lou Tullio's idea, and I think it ran out of steam and we pumped a lot of life back into it, and unfortunately we only had four years to run it and the legacy has faded off.
RS: Given all you had been through, why did you decide to run for mayor again in 2005?
RF: Well, part of the reason, I have to admit, was I was just trying to survive at the time. The main reason I ran was because of the indictment. If I had not run, then I was admitting I had done something wrong. And so by running I felt as though I was defending my agenda. And I knew I was going to lose – in my head I did. In my heart as I'm pounding the pavement, I kept thinking maybe somehow I could do this.
But you can't win an election when you have the Attorney General on your back, plus the paper. Next to my mother's passing, it was the most difficult thing I've gone through. Not the trial – but the second election. Going up and down the pavement and just knowing. I knew there was a fatigue that had set in with the citizens of Erie. Whether I was right or wrong, there had been too much controversy – and I didn't have any hope.
But I wasn't going to go down without a fight. I don't have any regrets about that at all. I just had to do it. And it's done. The frustrating part now is sitting back and really not having an avenue to talk about things. The major changes are no longer in the dialogue. I mean, the city's not going to disappear.
RS: So, when you were in office, did you have any desire to go further in your career?
RF: Oh yeah. When Kathy Dahlkemper won congress, that was a bittersweet moment for me. My goal had to be run for mayor twice and then in my second term run against Phil English for congress. At that time, the district wasn't so gerrymandered and still had parts of Butler, which my wife is from and that would have given me a bit of an anchor.
The mistake I made was that I should have really just stayed on council and run for my council seat.
RS: Our current Mayor Joe Sinnott was only on council one year and ran. How is that different?
RF: Well, first you had me carrying around the Attorney General on my back, and I had six people in the race. Joe was just being opportunistic – and I can't fault him for that. Anybody that knew anything, knew I couldn't win – it was impossible. And they didn't have to have the majority to win, as it was a plurality. I think he ended up beating Barry Grossman [Erie's current county executive, who was defeated in the 2013 primary election by Kathy Dahlkemper] by about 400 some votes – fairly close.
What's really disconcerting for me now as a citizen is: How can the mayor run unopposed? What it shows to me is a general level of apathy that has taken over. Where's someone to represent the people? There are decisions being made with little public input. I mean, talk about the buses on State Street. Apparently a decision was made, but everybody's running for cover to avoid responsibility and I can't understand that. And I can't grasp the apathy.
RS: Let's talk about the role of the county executive. Operational or visionary? What are your thoughts?
RF: You know, it all starts with the name. The name has no pizzazz. In Norfolk County Port Dover, Ontario, the County Executive is called the Mayor of the county. The name is too technical. And I don't mean any disrespect – I think we had a lot of people that ran it at that level. I think the role is to be the elected official that represents all of Erie County. Not just to have human resources or human services. Maybe that's the function of the county. The city has to give zoning permits too, but I don't view that as a function of the mayor. The mayor should oversee it – but people want a leader. Erie is desperately in need of a few people to stick their necks out.
If you can convince me that the way we're doing it now is working, okay go for it, but getting up and doing the same thing every day for the last 35-40 years just hasn't been working.
RS: What about the future of Erie?
RF: I believe the dynastic regimes are coming to an end. We saw [Ronald] Cleaver and [Joe] Giles [both of County Council] both brought down. Interestingly, in 15 years, we'll have had five County Executives – Judy Lynch, Rick Schenker, Mark Divecchio, Barry Grossman, and hopefully Kathy Dahlkemper. On one hand it's a good thing that the ability to change and elect new people is there, but it shows the lack of dynamic leadership. I'm not advocating people be in office for 30 years – totally opposed to that. But if you give yourself an agenda, you should be able to serve a couple of terms – and that should be enough because if you're really doing what needs to be done, you're going to burn yourself out.
Twelve years ago, Bosworth gave us major things we could do to improve the city. I hear elected officials all the time say we can't do certain things because Harrisburg has to control it – that's just crazy. There's so many things you can do locally – some type of local revenue sharing countywide – spearheaded by the county – which could help the city. One of the major issues with the city is that they have 40 to 50 percent of its properties tax exempt. Why isn't the mayor at the Convention Center Authority meeting every month saying, 'I want a cut of that (Hotel/Room tax)' – for the PILOT program or something. The city's taxpayers bear the burden. Why isn't he down there? I was working on those types of proposals back then.
My predecessor would routinely give guarantees to the Parking Authority so they could get their bond issues. Why doesn't the city get something in return for that. There's a value in the Parking Authority. It reduces the costs of their bonds – and we figured that out. One year we got $150k when we signed a guarantee.
I used to analyze all of the authority's annual reports because they all were hiding money – but not in a bad way. They had these capital reserve funds. The Parking Authority had $10-12 million easy. And these are properties of the city – we should be getting something out of it. It just wasn't looked at. I point that out, that despite all the hoopla, we were good managers. We were trying to be leaders and we were trying to be good managers.
Rebecca Styn can be contacted at rStyn@ErieReader.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @rStyn.